Latest test flight puts Virgin Galactic back in the game; Shares spike

By Sayujya S, Desk Reporter
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The American spaceflight company Virgin Galactic Holdings climbed as much as 36 percent in premarket trading after the company, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, conducted a test flight to space for the first time in more than two years.

The VSS Unity flight from New Mexico marks a critical step on the path toward the start of commercial space tourism, helping to put the company back on its stated schedule for flying Mr. Branson to suborbital space as early as this summer and resuming ticket sales.

Mr. Branson shared videos of the flight on social media and said on Twitter, “Delighted to be on the flightline to Virgin Galactic‘s first human spaceflight from the majestic Spaceport America.”

“We view this event as a major milestone,” Michael Ciarmoli, an analyst said. Importantly, the flight carried revenue-generating scientific research experiments for NASA, and collected key data for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Mr. Ciarmoli added.

Earlier attempts

Virgin Galactic’s first rocket burn in February 2019 paves the way for the next test, which is expected to carry additional employees. No date has yet been set for that step.

After the 2019 flight, engineers detected damage to the spacecraft from pressure that had built up after ventilating holes were accidentally covered, according to “Test Gods,” a book published this month by American writer Nicholas Schmidle, who was given access to observe the company.

The program suffered another setback in December when Unity had to glide to the ground after a rocket motor failed to ignite when it was dropped from carrier aircraft VMS Eve. A second flight attempt in February was troubled by electrical interference to the spacecraft’s avionics, while Virgin this month said it was probing stress issues affecting Eve, before the craft was cleared to fly.

This flight comes at a critical time for Mr. Branson as his space venture is facing competition from billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, the Amazon founder’s own efforts to create a commercial spaceline. SpaceX, owned by Tesla owner Elon Musk, has also been making strides in the sector.

Related: European Space Agency to develop its own low-cost reusable rockets